Use of Chemical Weapons by Syria


    In News

    Recently, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has briefed the United Nations (UN) Security Council about the usage of chemical weapons (CWs) by Syria.



    • Syria was pressed to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), 1997 in September 2013 by its close ally Russia after a deadly CWs attack that the West blamed on Damascus (capital of Syria).
    • By August 2014, Syria declared that the destruction of its CWs was completed. 
    • However, the initial declaration by Syria to the OPCW has remained in dispute.
    • In April 2020, OPCW investigators blamed three chemical attacks in 2017 on Syria and demanded details.
    • Syria did not respond and France submitted a draft measure on behalf of 46 countries in November to suspend Syria’s rights and privileges.
    • On 21st April 2020, the OPCW suspended Syria’s rights until all outstanding issues are resolved.
    • The step was criticised by Russia which accused OPCW and its investigators of factual and technical errors and acting under pressure from Western nations.


    Current Scenario

    • OPCW experts investigated 77 allegations against Syria and concluded that in 17 cases CWs were likely or definitely used.
    • OPCW will take up the issue with Syria and the UNSC will continue to insist on Syria’s full cooperation with the OPCW.
    • The investigation raises many questions about CWC’s initial declaration of its weapons, stockpiles and precursors and its ongoing programme.


    Chemical Weapons

    • Definition
      • A common conception of a CW is of a toxic chemical contained in a delivery system such as a bomb or artillery shell. While technically correct, a definition based on this conception would only cover a small portion of the range of things the CWC prohibits as ‘chemical weapons’.
      • Toxic Chemicals and their Precursors
        • Toxic chemicals are defined as ‘any chemical which through its chemical action on life processes can cause death, temporary incapacitation or permanent harm to humans or animals’.
        • This includes all such chemicals, regardless of their origin or of their method of production, and regardless of whether they are produced in facilities, in munitions or elsewhere.
        • Precursors are chemicals that are used for the production of toxic chemicals.
      • Munitions or Devices
        • Any munitions or devices specifically designed to inflict harm or cause death through the release of toxic chemicals.
        • Among these could be mortars, artillery shells, missiles, bombs, mines or spray tanks.
      • Equipment ‘Directly in Connection’
        • Any equipment specifically designed for use ‘directly in connection’ with the employment of the munitions and devices identified as chemical weapons.
      • Under the CWC, the definition of a CW includes all toxic chemicals and their precursors, except when used for purposes permitted by the Convention, in quantities consistent with such a purpose.
    • Examples of CWs include, but are not limited to
      • Fully developed CWs and the components of such weapons when stored separately (e.g. binary munitions).
      • Chemicals used to produce CWs (precursors).
      • Chemicals used to cause intentional death or harm.
      • Items with peaceful civilian uses, when used or intended for CWs use (dual-use items).
        • Dual-use describes chemicals or equipment that can be used for peaceful civilian and commercial purposes, but can also be used in the creation of weapons or as weapons.
      • Munitions and devices intended for the delivery of toxic chemicals.
      • Equipment directly in connection with the aforementioned munitions and devices.
    • Schedules of Chemicals
      • There are three Schedules that list toxic chemicals and their precursors.
      • For the purpose of implementing this Convention, these Schedules identify chemicals for the application of verification measures.
    • Toxins
      • Toxins are toxic chemicals produced by living organisms.
      • These are considered as both chemical and biological weapons when used in violation of the Convention.
      • The development, production and stockpiling of toxins for purposes of warfare are prohibited under the CWC.
        • Toxins are covered by the CWC because they are chemicals that can have chemical weapons applications, and fall under the definitions listed above for chemical weapons and toxic chemicals.
      • Synthetic Toxins: It is possible to synthesize many types of toxins in laboratories without harvesting the organisms that produce them in nature.
      • There are two toxins explicitly listed in Schedule 1, these are ricin (produced in nature in the seeds of the castor bean plant) and saxitoxin (produced in nature by cyanobacteria).
    • Old and Abandoned CWs
      • Old CWs fall into two categories, namely CWs produced before 1925 and CWs produced between 1925 and 1946 ‘that have deteriorated to such an extent that they can no longer be used as chemical weapons’.
      • Abandoned CWs are chemical weapons, including old CWs, abandoned by a State after 1st January 1925 on the territory of another State without the consent of the latter.
    • Types of Chemical Agents
      • Choking Agents
        • Inflicting injury mainly on the respiratory tract, choking agents irritate the nose, throat, and especially the lungs.
        • When inhaled, these agents cause alveoli, air sacs in the lungs, to secrete fluid, essentially drowning those affected.
        • Examples: Chlorine, Chloropicrin, Diphosgene and Phosgene.
      • Blister Agents
        • One of the most common CW agents, these oily substances act via inhalation and contact, affecting the eyes, respiratory tract, and skin, first as an irritant and then as a cell poison.
        • Exposure to blister agents causes large and often life-threatening skin blisters which resemble severe burns, and often results in blindness and permanent damage to the respiratory system.
        • Although casualties are high, deaths represent a small percentage.
        • Examples: Sulfur mustard, Nitrogen mustard, Lewisite and Phosgene oxime.
      • Blood Agents
        • These agents mainly inhibit the ability of cells to use oxygen, effectively causing the body to suffocate.
        • Some blood agents may also affect the ability of blood cells to transfer oxygen.
        • Blood agents are distributed via the blood and generally enter the body through inhalation.
        • Examples: Hydrogen cyanide, Cyanogen chloride and Arsine.
      • Nerve Agents
        • Nerve agents block an enzyme called Acetylcholinesterase (AChE) in the nervous system.
        • This causes the accumulation of a neurotransmitter between nerve cells or across synapses leading to hyper-stimulation of muscles, glands and other nerves.
        • Nerve agents are highly toxic with rapid effects and act primarily by absorption through the skin and lungs.
        • Examples: Tabun, Sarin, Soman and Cyclosarin.
      • Riot Control Agents
        • Riot control agents are intended to temporarily incapacitate a person by causing irritation to the eyes, mouth, throat, lungs, and skin.
        • Riot control agents, such as tear gas, are considered CWs if used as a method of warfare.
        • States can legitimately possess riot control agents and use them for domestic law enforcement purposes, but states that are members of the CWC must declare what type of riot agents they possess.
        • Examples: Tear Gas and Pepper Spray.


    Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons

    • It is an international organization established by the CWC, 1997.
    • Aim: It aims to implement and enforce the terms of the CWC.
    • Functions
      • Destroy all of the existing CWs under international verification.
      • Monitor the chemical industry to prevent CWs from re-emerging.
      • Provide assistance and protection to States Parties against chemical threats.
      • Foster international cooperation to strengthen the implementation of the CWC and promote the peaceful use of chemicals.
    • Powers
      • It is authorised to perform inspections to verify that signatory states are complying with the convention, including a commitment to grant inspectors full access to CWs sites.
      • It also performs testing of sites and victims of suspected CWs attacks.
    • Under its 2001 Relationship Agreement with the UN, it reports on its inspections and other activities to the UN through the office of the Secretary-General.
      • OPCW is not a UN organization.
    • Members: It has 193 members including India.
    • Headquarters: The Hague, the Netherlands.
    • It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013.


    Chemical Weapons Convention, 1997

    • It is an arms control treaty that allows for the stringent verification of compliance by State Parties.
    • Genesis
      • It was adopted by the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on 3rd September 1992 after 12 years of negotiations.
      • It opened for signature in Paris on 13th January 1993 and entered into force on 29th April 1997.
    • It is administered by the OPCW and prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of CWs by state parties.
    • It is the first disarmament agreement negotiated within a multilateral framework that provides for the elimination of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction under universally applied international control.
    • India is a signatory and party.

    Source: TH